The head of the World Health Organization has said Omicron may be less severe on average, but "the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response and costs more lives".
Speaking at the weekly media briefing on Tuesday, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "Make no mistake; Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities."
According to the WHO, there were more than 18 million reported cases last week. While the number of deaths remains stable for the moment, Tedros said he is concerned about the impact Omicron is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems.
"In some countries, cases seem to have peaked, which gives hope that the worst of this latest wave is done with, but no country is out of the woods yet," he said. "I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they're unvaccinated."
Tedros said it remains more important than ever to get vaccines to the unvaccinated. "Vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death. This is key to protecting hospitals from becoming overwhelmed," he added.
Tedros emphasized this pandemic is nowhere near over and with the incredible growth of Omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge, which is why tracking and assessment remain critical.
While new formulations of vaccines are being developed and assessed for how they perform against Omicron and other strains, Tedros said he is concerned that "unless … we change the current model, we'll enter a second and even more destructive phase of vaccine inequity.
"We need to make sure we share current vaccines equitably and we develop distributed manufacturing around the world. We can only beat this virus if we work together and share health tools equitably. It's really that simple," he said.